King Tut

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Virtual reality unmasks King Tut

Skull and facial analysis provide data to guide modern-day reconstruction of ancient pharaoh’s visage

LONDON, Sept. 30 — A high-tech facial reconstruction has shed new light on the looks of King Tutankhamen, the teenage king of ancient Egypt immortalized for nearly a century by his golden death mask.

SCIENTISTS AND SPECIAL-EFFECTS artists in Britain and New Zealand used digital techniques applied in crime investigations to fashion a fiberglass model they say provides the closest possible likeness of the pharaoh’s looks.

The cast of Tutankhamen’s head, which went on display for four weeks at London’s Science Museum on Monday, bears little resemblance to his golden death mask.

Unlike the famous face of the slight, heavy-lipped youth framed in a pharaoh’s headdress, the model shows a wide-faced young man with high cheekbones, smaller eyes and a heavy brow.

“I think people will be surprised it’s quite a different looking face. But it’s quite realistic given the technology used,” said a Science Museum spokeswoman.


The reconstruction team was forced to use X-rays taken in 1968 for its impression of the 18-year-old’s looks because the mummified head of Tutankhamen was too dried and sunken to give lifelike dimensions, she said.

Robin Richards, a facial rebuilding expert from University College London, scanned the features of people of the same age, sex, build and ethnic group as Tutankhamen to create an approximation of skin type, which was wrapped onto the 3-D digital skull.

New Zealand special effects artists fleshed out the skull with eye color and skin pigment, and sculptors then created the finished product out of clay, casting it finally in fiberglass.

The tomb of King Tutankhamen, a boy king who ruled Egypt in the 14th century B.C. and died mysteriously at a young age, was discovered by British archaeologist Howard Carter in 1922.


For a Discovery Channel documentary to be screened in October, investigators led by Greg Cooper, police chief of Provo, Utah, and Mike King of the Utah Attorney General’s office traveled to Egypt and examined Tutankhamen’s tomb, as well as the X-rays.

They say the disheveled state of the artifacts in the tomb suggested Tutankhamen’s burial was done hurriedly and haphazardly, while the X-rays revealed evidence of a blow to the back of the head.

They examined the cases against four suspects in the king’s death — his prime minister, Ay; his wife and half sister, Ankhesenamun; his treasurer, Maya; and his army commander Horemheb.

Their verdict will be revealed in a documentary about the investigation, to be broadcast on British television on Oct. 9. An article published in the Sunday Times said the team points the finger at Ay, who married Tutankhamun’s widow and succeeded him as pharaoh.

Forensic scientists led by Salt Lake City chief medical examiner Todd Grey say the X-rays show that Tutankhamen probably suffered from spinal disorder that fused together vertebrae in his neck and would have made him dependent on a cane to walk. More than 100 walking sticks were discovered in his tomb.

The king took the throne at the age of 9 after the death of his father Akhenaten at age 18. The cause of Tut’s death has long been debated, with theories ranging from hunting accident to murder.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.


Copyright 2010 Tim Stouse
Last modified: December 10, 2010
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